Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent:

Snippet of Amazon's summary: Writing with both wit and historical acuity, Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces: the growing political power of the women’s suffrage movement, which allied itself with the antiliquor campaign; the fear of small-town, native-stock Protestants that they were losing control of their country to the immigrants of the large cities; the anti-German sentiment stoked by World War I; and a variety of other unlikely factors, ranging from the rise of the automobile to the advent of the income tax.

That should give you an idea of the range of this book. Okrent leaves no rock unturned in this detailed history of the Prohibition era. The book starts with the political manueverings and personalities that got the 18th amendment passed. All fascinating. It moves on to describe the legal, political, judicial, economic and social impacts of Prohibition's enactment and enforcement, not just in the United States but in Canada, the Caribbean and Europe. Finally it tackles the rather fast fall from favor and repeal of Prohibition and closes with a short reflection on how the movers and shakers of the time have been essentially erased from our cultural memory.

In individual paragraphs and sections, the book is great. The stories are carefully researched and detailed and the individuals and events are really interesting. When taken in portions of more than a couple of pages however, it's just dense. Especially the first half where the movement is kind of gelling from different sections of society. There's no overarching narrative, so it's hard to stay engaged. I ended up reading it in 15 minute stints on my lunch break (thus, it took 4 months to finish). The actual Prohibition-era sections were much more fun, a lot of Baptists & Bootleggers type stuff.

Fans of history will enjoy this book, especially those that are amazed by the power of lobbyists (hint: Prohibitionists invented modern lobbying). It may be dense, but the individual stories are fascinating and often amusing. I recommend the book and intend to check out the PBS miniseries that is it's companion.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finished The Book Thief on Saturday, and I've been trying to figure out how to write about it ever since. I enjoyed the audiobook immensely. Allan Corduner's performance is fantastic, and listening to his performance may actually have made me more emotional than had I read the paper version of the book.

I wanted to include some quotations from the book in my review, because Markus Zusak's writing is very lyrical. Some could argue that it's overly-flowery, but I think it works, especially considering our narrator. However, since I listened to the audiobook, it's hard to actually remember the quotes I liked, since it's not like I can just bookmark the page and come back to it later. I tried googling for quotes, but most of the good quotes I found were all super spoilery. So you'll just have to live without examples of Zusak's prose.

The Book Thief is told from the perspective of Death. An appropriate narrator for a book that takes place in Germany during World War II. Death is a compassionate and actually quite witty narrator. Death tells the story of Leisel Meminger, the titular book thief. The first book Leisel steals is The Gravedigger's Handbook, which she finds in the snow next to her little brother's grave. She later goes on to steal a book out of a fire at a Nazi book burning, and a bunch of books from the wealthy mayor. Books are the most important things in Leisel's life, next to her best friend and next-door-neighbor Rudy, and her foster parents Hans and Rosa.

I don't want to spoil any of the plot of the book, but should you choose to read The Book Thief, I would recommend keeping a box of kleenex nearby. I'm just saying. I know it's hard to believe, but a book narrated by Death in Nazi Germany has some sad parts.